By Laura Legere / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Federal regulators have issued four permits for oil and gas wastewater disposal wells in Pennsylvania in the past six months, and those are unlikely to be the last.
Industry groups and researchers are renewing their efforts to find sites in the state where the salt- and metals-laden waste fluids produced from ever more shale gas wells can be entombed deep underground.
So far, each pending project has caused as much friction above ground as below. Already, permits for three of the four wells have been appealed by citizens and communities worried about the possible side-effects of such uses — from heavy traffic to potential earthquakes.
Last year, the research organization Battelle Memorial Institute began a two-year, $2.3 million project funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy to study opportunities for brine disposal in four Appalachian states, including in Western Pennsylvania. The engineering and consulting firm Tetra Tech produced a study last year for the Robinson-based Marcellus Shale Coalition on the potential for developing more disposal wells in the commonwealth.
Marcellus Shale operators reuse most of the wastewater that their wells produce each year to extract gas from new wells. The fluid that flows back from wells in a rush or a trickle can be collected and sent down other wells under high pressure to fracture the shale formation and release the gas trapped in the rock.
But the coalition’s study projected that the amount of waste fluid that is not recycled will grow from about 4 million barrels per year in 2012 to 13 million barrels per year in 2017.
For that waste, underground disposal is appealing for operators: the fluid can be processed and pumped down wells similar to the ones that brought it to the surface but at lower pressures so that it seeps into porous rock and stays there.
There are more than 140,000 injection wells in the United States that accept oil and gas waste. Most of them are used to coax oil from the earth, while about 20 percent are used for disposal, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Right now, there are only seven active disposal wells in Pennsylvania. It would take nearly 70 disposal wells in the commonwealth to get rid of to hold the volume of waste that is expected to be produced each year by 2017 cost effectively, the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s study found.
“Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done to get anywhere near that level,” Dale Skoff, the project manager for the coalition’s study, said during a presentation of the findings at an industry conference last fall.
“In practical terms, it is difficult to recycle every drop” of wastewater for several reasons, Penn State University extension associate David Yoxtheimer said.
Storage can be impractical at times or fracking operations can slow in an area so there is no immediate need to reuse the fluids. Some forms of treatment can only treat 75 to 80 percent of the waste, he said, leaving the rest for disposal.
The leftovers are expensive to manage. Disposal fees are added to the cost of hauling the fluids sometimes hundreds of miles to get to commercial facilities in Ohio, where there are about 200 disposal wells.
“Brine disposal capacity and costs are becoming a crucial bottleneck in the production life cycle for fluid management” in the Marcellus and Utica shales, the organization that awarded the Energy Department grant said when it funded the Battelle study.
Despite the industry’s desire for more disposal wells closer to drilling operations, obstacles continue to hamper efforts to open new wells for waste remain.
For years, the common understanding was that Pennsylvania’s geology was generally a poor fit for disposal wells or the best geology was already taken up by gas storage facilities.
Researchers and regulators now say that while Pennsylvania might lack rock layers with characteristics to rival the disposal capacity of states like Texas — where there are about 7,500 active disposal wells — depleted gas wells in the commonwealth offer a promising place to put the waste are a promising solution.
“The geology is possibly not ideal but with a surgical approach, particularly utilizing depleted wells and fields, it turns a plugging liability for an operator into something that is an asset,” Mr. Skoff said.
Companies say the biggest challenges are now public opposition to their projects; the months or years that pass between when they apply for a permit and when they get final approval; permit application and approval; and a dearth of data that can be used to find appropriate sites and avoid old abandoned wells.
The EPA has the primary authority to oversee disposal wells in Pennsylvania and the federal agency’s standard for gathering public input on projects takes time.
State-run programs in Ohio and West Virginia can turn around a permit in a few months, while public comment periods, hearings and appeals of EPA-issued permits in Pennsylvania have stretched the process past two years in some recent cases. State regulators can apply to take over responsibility of the disposal well program in their state, but the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has no plans to apply for that authority do so, a spokeswoman said.
Earthquakes triggered by deep brine disposal in other states have made neighbors even more wary of operations that they fear will bring truck traffic and the potential for water pollution into their communities, especially in regions of Pennsylvania pocked by poorly plugged wells from more than a century of drilling.
Since the start of the year, the EPA has issued permits for three disposal wells in Pennsylvania and residents have filed appeals with the EPA’s agency’s Environmental Appeals Board for two of them: a well proposed by Windfall Oil and Gas in Clearfield County and another by Seneca Resources Corp. in Elk County.
The appeal window is still open on the third permit, for a private disposal well proposed by Pennsylvania General Energy Co. in Indiana County. A fourth disposal well planned for Venango County by Stonehaven Energy Management has cleared the appeals process but is not yet active.
Citizens submitted more than 50 petitions asking the appeals board to review the Windfall permit last month. The chorus of concern included the supervisors of the host and neighboring townships; the city council, mayor, and city manager of DuBois; the Clearfield County commissioners and state Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield.
“Simply put, geologic and hydrological conditions in this area make the proposed site an egregiously poor one for such a well,” the DuBois city officials wrote in their petition.
The Environmental Appeals Board appeals board has urged the EPA in recent decisions to scrutinize the seismic risks posed by proposed wells. Regulators in turn have advised companies to provide more information up front about the geology around their projects and the chances of triggering earthquakes.
The recently permitted wells in Pennsylvania are not likely to cause seismic activity because of pumping limits and the depth, porosity, pressure and other characteristics of the target rock layers, the EPA said in documents responding to residents’ concerns.
More permits sought
Regardless of the opposition, more permits are in the pipeline.
Karl Kimmich, whose company Bear Lake Properties opened two commercial disposal wells in Warren County in 2013, recently applied for a third permit.
He advised potential disposal well operators to pick their sites carefully and address questions openly.
“You can’t put one of these in the middle of a neighborhood,” he said. “I’m not talking about potential water pollution — I think there is absolutely zero potential for that — but it would just be a nuisance if it’s in a neighborhood. It has to be located in either a very rural or semi-industrial area.”
A petroleum engineer whose companies operate both gas wellsand disposal wells, Mr. Kimmich had the idea to convert depleted gas wells into disposal wells to take the brine that his gas wells still produce. Then he saw an opportunity in the growth of shale gas wastewater and decided to make the wells commercial instead of private.
Now, those disposal wells accept about 20 truckloads a day of mostly concentrated brine left over from the recycling process at wastewater treatment plants, he said.
“We are in a field that has produced billions of cubic feet of gas and an unknown volume of brine,” he said. “Over the last 25 years this rock layer has been depleted of pressure. We’re basically refilling this void space that has been emptied.”
He thinks his experience can be replicated in other depleted gas fields in Western Pennsylvania, “if the right amount of scrutiny is applied.”
“There are literally tens of thousands of wells like ours in the state of Pennsylvania that are perfect disposal wells,” he said.
“They are not going to be Texas-level disposal wells,” he added, “but we have lots of them.”
Laura Legere: firstname.lastname@example.org